Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say


This is an imaginary passage I have composed that has annoying and confusing articulation marks.

If you are not a wind player, the fact that this is annoying may puzzle you. It’s like this: as a wind player, from the very beginning you receive strict instructions on the use of the tongue. If there is no slur mark over a note, you initiate the note with the tongue, if it is under a slur mark, you don’t. Simple as that, a digital, on – off situation. The passage above, as written, contains too many possibilities for easy reading. It involves guesswork, and that involves time. In some cases, a composer may want to leave the details of articulation up to the player, and that is fine. I enjoy 18th Century repertoire for this reason, and it is perhaps worthwhile for composers to familiarize themselves with what J. J.  Quantz has to say about the possibilities of articulation in his treatise “On Playing the Flute”.  (If for nothing else than to understand the weight of history that flutists bear.)

Time spent on interpretive decisions is interesting time. Time spent on guesswork is not.

This is the 21st Century, and when I see music that is exactly notated, I want to play it exactly and I want to know what it is I have to say, and how I should say it. Because that is what articulation is all about: how you pronounce your phrase. I want to think that the composer has put some thought into this, as I am putting some practice time into his or her piece.

And, dear composers, please don’t say about a slur: “oh, it’s just a phrase mark.” Really? I am a musician, I make phrases for a living. I don’t need to be told to make one. But I do need to know when to use my tongue and when to hold it. And please don’t just say “oh, play that legato.” It doesn’t answer my question because I can articulate legato as well as slur something legato. Which should I do?

So if I haven’t pissed you off yet and you really want to see the possibilities for articulating the above passage, here they are.

The first two staccato B-flats are probably meant to be played:



but perhaps the composer meant:


I would really like to be sure.

Now, the two E’s, the second one having a staccato, could be played:


But did the composer mean: Articulationwell, maybe not, but how can I be sure? So I interrupt practice to contact him or her, or interrupt the rehearsal time to ask, or take time out of the rehearsal break in which I have twenty other things to get done.

Several years ago I was working intensely on solo improvisation. I kept a notebook with comments on segments I had recorded. The words “Say something, dammit!” were written in block notes at one point. When you listen to music, if it articulates nothing, it says nothing.


Harmonic Exercises, with Articulation too!

When playing through the harmonic series, the second overtone (a twelth above the fundamental) is a great check point. When students begin learning harmonics, this one often proves elusive because of the tendency to cover too much of the embouchure hole. By rolling out a bit and blowing down, it usually speaks. The following exercise I find useful because it begins by alternating between the normal fingerings and the harmonic fingerings. For those new to harmonic exercises, it provides a good anchor.


The next page gives a workout for the lips, and introduces articulation to harmonics, although it is also useful to practice legato in bars 13 to 38. I find articulation exercises with harmonics, such as those in Trevor Wye’s book, to be great stabilizers and strengtheners for the embouchure.



Continuing with articulation, I am further inspired by Paul Edmund-Davies’ “The 28 Day Warm Up Book”. His articulation exercises are a mainstay of my warm up, and I decided to go one further and translate some into harmonic exercises. (Read my review of this book here.) This first exercise strengthens the elusive second overtone:



This next one overblows the third overtone. It is for those already strong in this area; please don’t over do it, or any of these exercises. It is useful to combine these variations with Edmund-Davies’ original.



Robert Winn: Musical Exercises to Develop the Technique of the Tongue

In many ways this is a book after my own heart. My years as an undergraduate with Bernard Goldberg were fraught with the re-working of my articulation. It would have been very useful to have such a book as this, with its written explanations (provided in English and German), numerous excerpts (some not found in other compilations), and standard as well as original studies.

When one takes on the task of trying to describe the mechanics of articulation and relating it to one’s native language, there is a risk of getting bogged down in linguistic terminology. For the general flute-playing public I think this book walks the line very well between Too Much Information and the vague “finger-pointing-at-the -moon” sort of stuff you find elsewhere.

Once you do mention linguistics though, pedants like me crawl out of the woodwork with fingers and tongues wagging. There are several things I would like to wag on. Mind you, I am a pedant, not an expert, so my comments are below in the “Pedant’s Corner”.

It was very enlightening to read about some of Winn’s key concepts. He points out that some articulation difficulties are linked to the fingers in a way I hadn’t thought about, and going through some of the studies helped me sort that out. The position of the teeth, in front and in back, was something I had also not considered before.

All in all I enjoyed reading this book as well as playing the studies, although the text could have used a good editor for English punctuation and clarity. (I can’t comment on the German). I do hope that future editions will see to this.

Pedants Corner:

1. One basic aspect is ignored, that of aspiration in English and German consonants. If you are an English speaker, you will say the “T” in the name “Todd” differently from the “T” in “stick”. Todd’s “T” is aspirated. The tendency to puff air rather than release it from the mouth can pose a problem for beginning flute students of languages that do this.

2. In mentioning the tendencies for Russian and Bulgarian, Winn is correct that there is a large build-up of physical tension for the consonant “T”. One reason for that is it is produced with the tongue much further back than in English, touching the alveolar ridge. And it is never aspirated. However, that is only half of the picture. I don’t know about Bulgarian, but each Russian consonant is paired with its palatalized twin, a much softer version. A crude way of explaining this is to imagine the consonant followed by a “Y” (as in “you”) “TY” is very soft, produced very forward in the mouth and is more of a release than an attack. I spoke to someone who believes this linguistic ability is responsible for Denis Bouriakov’s amazing articulation.



All music is an articulation exercise (or could be made into one)

In response to the question “How should I practice articulation?”, I always answer “everything is an articulation exercise, or can be adapted into one”. Spending more money on expensive Leduc editions will not help your tongue. Reading theories about where the optimal point of articulation is (behind the teeth, on the palate, between the lips) can give you ideas but not answers, since nobody seems to be in 100% agreement.

Since nobody can look into your mouth and tell you where to put your tongue, I’ll repeat another truism: all articulation practice is tone practice. Your ears will tell you what works. Good articulation requires just as much awakening of the ears as the tongue.

“But I have an OK tone, it’s just when I use my tongue for any amount of time it starts to sound bad!”, you may answer.

“Good!” I say, “So the ears are switched on.”
The short answer to this problem is that when you engage the tongue, the air behind it has to keep going despite a short interruption. Many players forget this and instead of increasing abdominal support to keep the energy behind the air stream they tighten the embouchure, or even worse, use the jaw to help the tongue! This is what causes fatigue and lack of control in long articulated passages.

It could also be the tongue is working too hard. My former teacher Bernard Goldberg used to admonish me be saying “you are only slicing air, not last week’s bagels”.

There are a few checkpoints: maybe the distance between the Du and Gu of double tonguing is too great. Some find it useful to shorten this distance by thinking the Du Gu action as having a vertical (up and down) dimension to it as opposed to just a back-and-forth motion.

How to establish efficiency? There are no shortcuts. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if you seriously, seriously devote time to this aspect of playing, your body can’t help but adopt the most efficient means possible – if you include your ears and brain in the process. The ears tell you when it’s good and your brain tells you to stop, re-investigate when it’s not good or when you’re fatiguing yourself. This process will repeat itself a zillion times. Like any muscular activity we need diligent, consequent practice and patience to establish new habits.

Try the following with Mendelssohn’s Scherzo, it’s an adaptation of Aurèle Nicolet’s method:

Break the solo into manageable passages (for example, the first passage could be the first 13 complete bars)
Play the passage slowly legato – each note focused and resonant
Play the passage slowly with ha ha articulation (no tongue!)
Play the passage with flutter tongue (either kind, throat or tongue)
Play the passage double tonguing every single written note (g,g,b-flat, b-flat,c,c,d,d,etc…)
Play the passage as written

You notice I try to avoid advice on placement and mechanics of the tongue, and mention of particular “schools” like the French School, which is supposedly the ace of articulation. That may well be, but listen to old recordings from the early 20th century English virtuosi, holy smokes, they could hold their own! Also, South Indian musicians, whose native Dravidian languages use retroflex sounds, where the tongue is actually pointed backwards, can move their tongues at lightning speed. Just listen to any mrdangam player doing the rhythmic solmization of konnakkol (that ta-ki-di-mi stuff)!

In a nutshell:
Ears are just as important as the tongue.
Remember the air produces the sound, not the tongue.
Invest wisely, get more on your return! In this case it means a long-term committment to intelligent practice.

Double Double Tongue

Working on the Berio Sequenza, I’ve been trying to figure out ways to double tongue faster. Theoretically, I presume, one should be able to double tongue exactly twice as fast as one can single tongue. [1x ST = 2x DT] So if I can single tongue 16th notes at mm.=120, why can’t I double tongue 32nd notes at the same speed? It works sometimes, but only for a short burst of time.

Here’s how I’m working to prolong it: practice double tonguing as fast as possible independent from the beat – not trying to fit two or for or however many on a certain note. It’s kind of like how you try to get vibrato to sound smooth, not sounding like 4 or 5 to a beat but just natural. Try it with the tongue!

Take Taffanel/Gaubert e.j. no. 4
I’ll play the ascending line slurred, then descending with double tonguing as fast as possible independent of the beat, but keeping the fingers in time. Usually I start with tempo mm.=100 then work up. Then I will switch, ascend with double tonguing, then descend legato.

Going back and forth between fast articulation and legato gives a good rest for the tongue, and it’s a good way to focus on the tempo again. (For some reason, my brain can turn off when articulating fast!) When I feel confident, I will try articulating ascending and descending.

One thing that helps: with the tongue moving so fast, it really does interfere with the airstream. Therefore, you really need a steady support from the abdominal muscles – it actually helps when keep them firm and moving in and up when exhaling.

Berio uses this technique of double tonguing as fast as possible in his woodwind quintet also – so it’s good preparation for his other works!

Photo: Arthur Sassa/AFP-Getty Images File

The Value of Time II

Here’s a run-down of what I’m up to practice-wise. Not interesting reading for sensation seekers. Sorry. But now and then I need to keep tabs on the household stuff.
Yes, having a 6-month-old bundle of joy does compromise one’s practice time, especially if one is also working. So I’ve been very vigilant about keeping time and here’s what it comes out to:

  • 4 min. Tai Chi hand exercises
  • 8 min. Harmonic and Trill warm up
  • 8 min. Scales/ Taffanel Gaubert
  • 10 min. Scales with articulation and excerpts with articulation*
  • 8 min. Tone, dynamic and vibrato exercises from PL Graf’s Check Up
  • 4 min. movement of Bach Sonata

That’s a total of 42 min. just basic maintenance! Plus goofing around, sipping tea, messing with the tuner/metronome, stretching, looking for pencil = 8 min. So the whole ” maintenance and warm up” lasts 50 min.! Hmmm. Well, I think I’ll stick with this for now, plus I plan on adding 15 min. of Moyse next week when I have fewer rehearsals. To explain: I am having to build up after a hiatus since September. I have been playing regularly since October; however, need to be in Solo Recital Form within a couple of months, and the above regime with added Moyse is what it will take. Then there are the pieces to practice…..

* I include some repertoire in my warm up – esp. with articulation. There was a time (1996, to be exact) that I warmed up on Berio’s Sequenza. Yes, I was that fit (and nuts!). Otherwise, it could be Mendelssohn’s Scherzo or Carnival of the Animals. Today it was Zappa’s Echidna’s Arf (for the 5-tuplets) and Black Page no. 1 (for the 11-tuplets)!

It seems I can’t leave the house until I’m sure my tongue is in working order, and that my articulation is clean. Sort of like having clean socks and underwear, you should always be prepared! There are people who won’t leave the house unless their shirt is ironed, or their shoes are spiffy, I’m not that picky…..

Some of you may also wonder why I do scales before tone studies. That was Peter Lloyd’s idea and I find it really works for me. Get playing first, get things working first, then to concentrated exercise on tone.

Peter-Lukas Graf on Articulation

A few days ago I received my quarterly publication from the German Flute Society that featured a tribute to Peter-Lukas Graf, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

I thought I would use this occasion as well. Last May I attended his masterclass at the Conservatory in Amsterdam. What he had to say, especially about articulation, bears repeating. I find myself using these ideas with my students all the time.

Here goes:
Articulation is a matter of embouchure and air = quality of sound. During articulated passages, keep the tongue as if saying the “y” in “year”. The tongue is always piano.

There are 4 kinds of articulation:

  1. Portato. Sustained articulation, using only enough of the tongue in order to repeat the note. There is a tiny little diminuendo at the end of each note.
  2. Detache. Here there is also a little diminuendo at the end of each note, and a little interruption between each note.
  3. Staccato. A short note with a big interruption. Personally, I like to keep the idea of the diminuendo – even if it is a nano second. That way, it gives each note a kind of “lift”.
  4. Marcato/Martellato. Strong accent. The accent can’t be done with the tongue (tongue must always be piano!), it must come from the air. You can practice it without the tongue by saying “ha-ha-ha-“, moving the abdominal muscles. This articulation can’t be done very fast.

I love the idea of staccato as something that you can practice in slow motion (i.e. detache and portato are slowed down staccati!)

There is also the Langue Sorte as Moyse describes in de la Sonorite – this is used for special notes and is also not a quick-type of articulation.

In Graf’s Check-Up; 20 Basic Studies for Flutists you can find articulation exercises in ex. no. 15.